When a Child's Pet Dies
Last night I received a heartbreaking email from a reader. He was emailing me because his child's cat had been hit by a car and he and his wife were at a loss as to what to tell her (the girl is about six). They have an active devotional practice and an active practice of ancestor veneration. They neither wanted to approach death as something wrong and to be hidden, or to lie to their child, but neither did they want to cause their little girl an iota's worth of unnecessary pain. They asked me what I suggested. With their permission, I'm going to share with you what I told them, but I want to preface that by a disclaimer and a story.
Firstly, I don't have children. I don't want children. I am a child-free zone. I do however have a god-daughter whom I love dearly (and with whom this subject has come up), and four nieces and nephews. I have children in my life.
Secondly, I well remember being about four and having my dog die. His name was Buttons and he was ooooold when we got him from a relative. He was my absolute best friend in the world when I was very small and for the time he was with me, we were inseparable. One summer day, my bio-mom sent me with a friend of hers to the beach. It was an unusual outing but i had a really good time with her friend and her friend's two daughters, who were a bit older than I. When I came home, as I usually did, I called for my dog. There was only silence. I went looking for him, amid the growing discomfort of the adults. Finally my mother told me that he had been so sick that they had to put him to sleep that day (hence why I was sent to the beach). I was *p*ssed*. To this day I remember the feeling of betrayal. Of course my mother had waned to spare me the pain of having to see my dog die but she hadn't really. What she'd spared me was a moment of integrity and responsibility as a human being, what she'd spared me was the chance to say good-bye. What she'd spared me were the last moments with my friend. It was a denial of my personhood, of my integrity, of the friendship that I had with this dog. It was done out of a misguided belief that because I was a child, i needed to be shielded from the reality of loss. It came from a caring place. It was, I maintain, the wrong decision.
So I told my clients this. I told them that they knew their daughter the best, and in the end, they had to make the best decision that they thought possible for her as a human being but this was my experience and I know what to this day I wish had happened. I wish I'd been allowed to say goodbye. I wish i'd been there when my dog was euthanized. i wish that I had not been lied to about the whole issue. Now it helped greatly that my clients and I share more or less the same religious tradition. We both have certain beliefs about the afterlife and we both have ancestor practices. This is a real godsend in situations like this. It gave us common ground from where to proceed.
I suggested that they be honest about what had happened to the cat. They had salvaged the body so I told them what I would do in this situation (indeed what we had done when my god daughter was in a similar situation) : wrap the cat up in a blanket if it's body is too mangled to easily be viewed, and allow the child to say goodbye. Explain what happened in simple terms the child can understand. Children are smart and they have integrity of spirit. They can indeed grasp loss and this was an opportunity to work through those emotions as a family in a way that could strengthen family bonds and leave the child with a greater sense of emotional resiliency. The cat was their child's friend so going on the assumption (which turned out to be true) that they intended to bury the animal, I suggested they have their daughter help prepare a small ritual around that, a way of saying good bye. I also suggested that she be encouraged to set up a shrine to the cat. I believe animals have sentience and I have no problem at all with seeing them honored as beloved friends on an ancestor shrine. So given that they already had a family ancestor practice, I suggested they incorporate this unfortunate loss into it allowing their daughter to take the lead. (If they hadn't had such a practice, this might have been a good stepping stone toward developing one).
I also counseled them that as with any loss, they ought not expect the emotions surrounding the death to go away quickly. The cat had an impact in their daughter's life. It was appropriate that there might be a time of grieving and that time isn't something that can or should be rushed (or necessarily medicated away). I see this when people lose loved ones all the time. After a few months, friends and acquaintances don't know what to do or say. They are uncomfortable and want to help I think but are scared of the deep pain involved and start to suggest that perhaps the person has grieved enough. Well, there is no enough. I tell people with any loss: grieve as long as you need to grieve. This is a process and so long as you are actively engaged and not stomping it down or blocking it, it will run a natural course. Grieve as long as you grieve and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It is right and proper to grieve our dead. Ancestor work allows us to maintain a connection but it's different and non-corporeal and there is a loss to be mourned, a transition that we can neither understand nor until it is our proper time follow. I suggested that in addition to making their daughter part of the process they encourage creative outlets (writing, drawing, coloring, story telling, etc.) by which she could engage with her sadness.
and that was that. it's not much different than the advice i'd give is a person died. I very much do not believe in lying to children. They are people with an ingrained sense of fairness and integrity and with support they can grow into magnificent compassion and hopefully magnificent human beings.
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